Offensive leadership the key for Huskies in ‘03

The 2002 season was a strange old bird. It was a season featuring a nightmare loss to Michigan and of being shut out for a half against San Jose State. It was a season of losing to California for the first time in 26 years, and of trudging through several weeks of puzzling lethargy.

It was a season of the Huskies finally coming alive with three dazzling performances to close out the schedule. As well, it was a season of seeing the star wide receiver of a 7-5 team flex at a press conference, before the team went out and laid an egg in the Sun Bowl game.

With such dazzling riches of talent returning for the 2003 campaign, everyone recognizes the window of opportunity for these Washington Huskies. Offensively they return a very good quarterback, a great fleet of wide receivers, an experienced offensive line and a seasoned senior tailback. Defensively, they have a potentially fantastic defensive line, linebackers who can run like the wind, and a defensive backfield that can gel - given the right system.

Rick Neuheisel has made it clear that the team needs to return to the running game and "get tougher". This would cure a lot that ailed the Dawgs in '02. However, there was an element that was missing that need to be focused on, if Washington is to return to her former glory.

Not enough leadership was exhibited during this past season, and its void cost the Dawgs some games. There are three players (all on offense) whom I view as being key to Washington's upcoming gridiron fortunes.

With the possible exception of Mario Bailey, Reggie Williams is the greatest wide receiver in Washington history. However there is still some room for improvement. Williams has to constantly face a very physical brand of double coverage, and it is understandable to grow frustrated at having one's talents be stifled. But this is the reality of being the best wide receiver on the west coast, and Reggie Williams will be an upperclassman next year. This extra experience should help him learn to channel his frustrations into finding new ways to beat the other team, rather than the detrimental effects that occur when becoming flustered. Reggie Williams certainly has the supporting cast to become one of the greatest wide receivers ever.

There is also the question of Rich Alexis. He has progressed much further than a lot of people recognize. Assuming he manages to stay healthy, 2003 has to be the season that Alexis carries the Washington running game on his back. I see many similarities between the career timelines between Alexis and USC's Heisman trophy winner Carson Palmer. Some people have written off Alexis, but I truly believe that with effective blocking in front of him, #24 can be a fantastic running back and could end his career in a monolithic blaze of glory. The two keys for Alexis are health and confidence. Early in the season, the entire offensive unit has to KNOW that they can run the ball effectively. Then they'll see that it can be a force and a wonderful complement to the passing game. Rich will need to lead by example, hitting the creases, running hard, and average 4.5 yards per carry. That will establish a psychological advantage over defenses.

Cody Pickett is the third key. He is a tremendous leader and a very good quarterback. We saw early in the season that with plenty of time, he has the ability to look to his second and third receivers, and make good decisions and even better throws. However, when under the duress of a fierce pass rush, he seems to still lock on to his primary receivers. I also sense that he sometimes has bouts of self-doubt in these situations. If I can be so presumptuous as to speculate, I have a feeling that the Miami nightmare (in which Pickett committed six turnovers) still dwells in the back of his mind. In no less than four interviews since that Nov 2000 game, I have heard or read Pickett mention the need to get his confidence back. Now, his senior season looms before him. There is something about two years of starting experience that means so much to a quarterback, and I see a parallel between Pickett and Warren Moon in this sense. They share many of the same characteristics; they each have/had a very good arm, the respect of their teammates, good scrambling ability, periodic displays of brilliance, as well very keen intelligence. Warren Moon's talents fully blossomed in game five of his senior campaign, and he breathtakingly dominated the rest of the season. He carried the Huskies to a Rose Bowl Championship. Pickett too, can metamorphose into this role and lead this team to Pasadena.

As frustrating as the defense was to watch at times this season, for some reason I am not very worried about it. I feel that it is in good hands with Neuheisel. A more aggressive approach is certainly needed. It is painful to watch Husky players rushing on and off the field as the opponent's offense approaches the line of scrimmage and begins to run the play. From the Husky players' point of view, they don't even know who is supposed to be in the play until the play clock has ticked down, and they are pressed into doing more thinking than of instinctively going after it. Neuheisel will have this altered by spring practice.

Washington opens the season in a colossal showdown against the defending National Champion, the Ohio State Buckeyes. A Washington victory could serve as the same springboard as did the win at Nebraska in 1991. These Huskies need to learn that it takes passion and heart for a full sixty minutes to win games and sustain a legacy. With next year's team being top-heavy with experienced upperclassmen, the Huskies have a heavily stacked deck in their favor for gridiron riches.
Derek Johnson can be reached at djohnson@Dawgman.com

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